From the World to the 1st Cav
by Jerry Prater
APRIL - MAY, 1967 — After the AIT graduation exercise, my bride and I left Fort Polk and drove to Houston to spend a few days with the friends I made while working at Foley’s. We also toured the San Jacinto battleground and monument, and were also able to tour the battleship Texas. We then drove back to Garland so I could spend time with my family and the friends I grew up with before I had to leave for Oakland.
Since we had no place to live, we stayed with my parents while I was on leave. My mother was very upset because I was going to Vietnam, especially since I was going as a light weapons infantryman. I tried to soothe her fears by telling her that my orders were to report to the 4th Infantry Division in Pleiku. I told her “You hardly ever hear anything about the 4th Infantry, they just don’t get much action and don’t have many casualties. So, since I’m going to the 4th Infantry, you don’t have much of anything to worry about. You would only have to worry about me if I were being assigned to the 1st Cavalry because you hear about them being in action all the time.” Those words would come back to haunt me!
During my 24 day leave, my bride and I did everything together and were almost inseparable because we had so little time together since our marriage. We were only able to see each other on four occasions from late Saturday afternoon until just after noon on Sunday during the 17 weeks I was stationed at Fort Polk. We promised each other several times that we would be totally faithful to each other, and that we would write each other every day. We were both certain that we would be totally faithful because we were each other’s first and only love, and neither of us had ever had sex with anyone else.
Then, the fateful day came. The orders I received dated 19 April 1967 stated that I was to report to SP/5 Johnson at the “US Army Personnel Center, Oakland Army Terminal, BLDG 640, Oakland, California not later than 1200 hours on 21 May 67.” Two other people who were also named in these orders were Larry Nunn and Donald Schmidt. My wife, my parents, and my wife’s parents went with me to Love Field in Dallas to see me off to Oakland. I still remember walking out on the runway, climbing up the steps, and, just before I stepped into the plane I turned and waved. Even though I couldn’t see them, I had a feeling that it was the last time they would ever see me alive.
I hadn’t ridden on a plane before, and I knew nothing about flight schedules, or which airlines flew to what cities. Somehow I had gotten into my mind that I had to fly Delta. So, when I made my reservations, I had a non-stop flight from Dallas to Los Angeles, a short layover before my flight to San Francisco, and another short layover for my flight to Oakland. Of course, the plane barely got off the ground before it descended to land in Oakland!
As ordered, I reported to the Oakland Army Terminal, and the waiting time at the terminal could be one filled with a lot of lousy details. I did nothing on my first full day there, but got a wonderful detail on my second day. I was detailed to load laundry onto a deuce and a half and ride with it across the Bay Bridge and drop it off at a Laundromat in the Chinatown section of San Francisco. After it was unloaded, we loaded the laundry that was ready for pickup and rode with it back to Oakland. Now, those are the types of details I can handle! The next day I was on a cleaning detail and we had to sweep and wash floors, scrub sinks, and other good cleaning chores. I had another day with nothing to do, then I was scheduled to pull KP the following day. I got out of it, thank goodness, because I was called to be placed in the holding section awaiting my flight orders for Vietnam. Larry Nunn, Edward House, Donald Schmidt and I spent a lot of time together as we awaited our travel orders. We stayed in the holding section until Special Orders Number 80 scheduled the four of us to depart on May 29.
The seats on the airplane were three wide, so Edward House, Larry Nunn and I sat in a row together. We made a stop in Honolulu and we were able to deplane for a short period of time to stretch our legs as the plane was refueled. We boarded the plane and the three of us sat together again until our next stop, which was to be at Clark Air Base in the Philippine Islands. About three hours after we left Honolulu, I remember looking out the window at all the water and thinking that the Pacific was such a large ocean that, if the plane went down, neither the plane nor any passengers would ever be found. And, to make matters even worse, I couldn’t swim!
We landed and deplaned at Clark Air base because that was the end of the line for the American Airlines plane and crew. All the luggage was removed and placed into the Southeastern Asian Airline plane, we all boarded the plane, and Larry Nunn, Edward House and I sat on a row together again. When the plane reached approximately 25,000 feet, we heard the loud sound of air rushing in the cabin. Then, the pilot made a sharp turn to the left and put us in a steep dive towards the ground. At first I thought the plane was out of control and that we were going to crash. But, the pilot came on the intercom and told us that a door seal had apparently developed a leak and we were making an emergency landing back at Clark. I didn’t think I would survive until we got on the ground. I could never ride on a roller coaster because my stomach is much too weak, and this dive made a roller coaster ride seem like sitting on a feather bed! We were back on the ground in less than ten minutes, and we deplaned while the seal on the rear door that had come loose was repaired. We were standing on the runway in the sun and heat of the Philippines while the seal was being repaired, and we all had a lot of trouble getting our stomachs to settle down and get prepared for the flight to Pleiku.
After the repairs were completed, we boarded the plane, and Larry Nunn, Edward House and I, once again, sat on a row together. The plane took off and we climbed to our cruising altitude without any incident. It finally began to get dark after we had been in the air for about an hour. It had been approximately 18 hours since we left Oakland, and the entire flight up to now had been during daylight. One of the Asian stewardesses offered me a meal and, even though I wasn’t very hungry, I decided to take one because I had no idea when I would have the opportunity to eat another good meal. That was a mistake because the meal tasted like a warmed over salisbury steak TV dinner. I didn’t finish eating the meal because it tasted so bad, and my stomach was beginning to feel bad. Some time later, the pilot announced over the intercom that we were now flying over Vietnam and we would be landing in Pleiku within 30 minutes!
We landed at approximately 9:00 p.m., or 2100 hours for you lifers, debarked from the plane and immediately boarded on an olive drab military bus for the short ride from the airport to the processing center. Immediately after stepping out of the bus and onto Vietnam soil, I really felt the heat and humidity, even that late in the evening. We were formed up so we could be processed into our assignment with the 4th Infantry Division. As they began calling the names of all the soldiers who had been on the plane, my stomach began to feel very queasy. It had to be a combination of the heat and humidity, the length of time I had been on the plane, the emergency landing at Clark, and the lousy meal I had eaten about an hour before. Then, I had to bend over and I threw up, and I could taste the lousy meal I had on the plane again. I then felt better and was able to tolerate the processing, and had a very good sleep in a tent that was used by all incoming soldiers.
After our breakfast the next morning, Edward House came over to me, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Well Prater, I’m ready to go home, I’ve already got my tan”! House, of course is an African-American.
During a formation after breakfast, the NCOIC made an announcement that four members of the 1st Cav had been killed in a helicopter crash and four of those who arrived the previous evening were being transferred to the 1st Cav. The four names he called out were Edward House, Larry Nunn, Donald Schmidt, and Jerry Prater. My first thought was that I was going from a division that saw little action to the division that seemed to have the most action, so my chances of getting back home alive just dropped significantly. My next thought was “What am I going to say to my mother after telling her that should would not have to worry as long as I was not in the 1st Cav.” We boarded the C-123 plane and flew from Pleiku to An Khê.
We were processed into the 1st Cav, were issued combat fatigues and boots, our helmet with camouflage cover and liner, and an M-16 was signed out to us. We spent a couple of days and nights just outside Camp Radcliff to zero in our M-16s, learn how to repel, and learn several other things we would need to know before we were sent to our platoon. We then went back inside Camp Radcliff and were assigned to the first platoon, Company A, 1/8 Cav. We were given a post card to send home so our family would know our address so they could write to us. I wrote at the bottom of my card, which my mother kept and I have it still today, “Please don’t worry because things aren’t as bad as people say.”
The four of us were then placed on a chopper and sent to an LZ, I don’t know which one, but probably LZ English, and received all the other items we would need. This included our belt and strap, rucksack, ammo pouches, entrenching tool, poncho, four canteens, two flares, four grenades, a claymore mine, and 20 magazines filled with 5.56 mm cartridges. We then got everything strapped together, and we saddled up while we waited for our transportation to our unit.
at An Khê
|John Charles Pape
Our wait wasn’t very long. House, Nunn, and Schmidt were loaded on a helicopter that was taking the mail and hot meal to the unit. Since there was not enough room for me, I had to get on the chopper that was carrying the ammo and other supplies. I sat on top of the cases of ammo that was loaded on the right side of the chopper because that was the only space available for me. As we were heading toward the platoon, the chopper dipped to the right and the boxes of ammo started to lean outwards and I had to grab the top of the chopper to keep from falling off! The chopper leveled off, and the ammo cases and I arrived safely at the platoon. I reported in to Lt. Pape, the platoon leader, and my service with the 1st Platoon of Company A, 1/8 Cav began.
Pleiku — see this map: Pleiku.
An Khê — for maps, see: An Khê and Vicinity, An Khê (Camp Radcliff), Detailed.